Stepping into a wild world: Remembering Maurice Sendak's 'Where the Wild Things Are'

Published: Wednesday, May 9 2012 2:00 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this July 26, 1990 file photo, artist Maurice Sendak signs his individual prints from "The Mother Goose Collection," in New York. Sendak, author of the popular children's book "Where the Wild Things Are," died, Tuesday, May 8, 2012 at Danbury Hospital in Danbury, Conn. He was 83.

Susan Ragan, file, Associated Press

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Two years ago I revisited Maurice Sendak's award-winning children's book "Where the Wild Things Are" (1963) as part of the research for a novel. In the process I caught wind of the live-action film version directed by Spike Jonze (2009) and blogged about being both nervous and excited, as is usually the case when beloved books are adapted into movies.

I have to admit that I never did see the whole film, though I did catch snippets on TV and noticed that its tone, while interesting for someone like me, would never appeal to my kids. The book is, of course, a different story.

Now, after learning that Maurice Sendak passed away Tuesday at the age of 83, I can't help but reflect again.

“Where the Wild Things Are” came early in my education because it was the first book I ever claimed to be able to read (when in actuality I had memorized the words). This is pretty typical for children’s books. But my main point of interest is that this was my first exposure to a transformation tale in which the setting undergoes a supernatural change, rather than a character's body, such as my favorite childhood character “He-Man,” who underwent a metamorphosis.

Furthermore, Max's excursion to "Where the Wild Things Are" occurs within his mind instead of physically or literally. This puts Max's character into the same category as characters like Dante or Alice (in Wonderland), who represent positive investigators into their illusions; or like Don Quixote and Calvin (from Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes), who represent complainers who become lost in those illusions.

Those designations are entirely a matter of interpretation. For me, Max's relationship to Calvin and Hobbes is what struck me anew, after having been away from “Where the Wild Things Are” since my childhood. Calvin and Hobbes came much later — just as the strip was published much later — but made use of a very similar concept: a little boy who, due to boredom or by way of dealing with his frustrations and putting his creativity to use, escapes into a parallel reality of his own making.

It’s no wonder that both stories draw on this theme, because both are surprisingly accurate depictions of a child’s mind (something for which both works received praise and criticism alike). Max uses his imagination as a remedy for his boredom, as does Calvin.

A crucial difference, though, is that Max’s imagination only develops to this level as a last resort, a means of channeling his anger so as not to cause mischief (the reason he is sent to his room without supper). Calvin’s imaginary adventures, on the other hand, often are his mischief, with reality only setting in once a punishment — like being sent to his room — is given. So in other words, Max uses his imagination to cope with reality, whereas Calvin uses his to avoid or escape it.

This comparison startled me because my enduring impression of Max was that he was an even darker and more stubborn escapist than Calvin, an angry child dressed in wolf’s clothing who achieves leadership over monsters. Calvin typically fights monsters. But Margalit Fox's description in The New York Times of "characters (that) are headstrong, bossy, even obnoxious" could apply to both.

I had a large stuffed toy of Max that was always the least favorite of my stuffed toys because he appeared so menacing and tyrannical. Calvin, despite possessing a preference for violence and a genius’s capacity for menace, is, after all, a Sunday-comic character written for amusement and whose exploits, like a bungling would-be villain, are bound to fail. This proves, then, that the aspect crucial to an interpretation of character is that character’s outcome — not just attitude, but how attitude changes.

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